Sermon
March 7, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading - John 4:5-15

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." 11 The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" 13 Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." 15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water always.

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The last time I preached was the first Sunday in Lent. The Gospel lesson for that Sunday was the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. The theme there, and a traditional theme of Lent is the task of self examination. And that was the topic of my sermon: the necessity to take time to examine our lives in the light of the Gospel and see where we should stay the course and where we should make changes.

After that sermon I was asked, then what? You take the time to make such a self examination and then what? What can you do? What resources can you draw upon if you see areas that need new direction, new energy, new enthusiasm and vitality.

Well, I think today’s lesson suggests an answer. The story of Jesus and the woman at the well revolves around Jesus saying: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."

The woman doesn’t quite understand what Jesus means and so Jesus is required to explain further: "those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

So this living water that Jesus gives begins as something you receive from the outside but is transformed into something that becomes an inner source of life.

Jesus offers himself as the source, the catalyst, to break through our inertia and provide the impetus for a change of direction. He offers himself, his spirit, as a source of new energy, new enthusiasm and vitality. And when we accept this gift, he says, it does not remain external to us, but becomes a resource within us, a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

What is this inspiration, this energy, this resource within us that Jesus brings to life. I found a good answer in a book of sermons by Dr. Martin Luther King - and the answer was in the title: Strength to Love.

The direction is love, the energy is love, the resource is love, the gift is the strength to love. That is the gift of Christ, that is the challenge of discipleship.

Dr. King is not sentimental about love. As you read through these sermons you realize what love requires. If you think of his life you know that love called him out of a comfortable, prestigious, safe and secure place as a minister of a upper middle class church - called him out of that place and into the streets, into the courthouse, into the jail house, into the limelight and into the high powered sights of an assassin’s rifle. No, love was not sentimental, it was a demanding discipline.

Take the first sermon in the book - A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.

One element of the strength to love, King says, is a tough mind, a mind characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. Softmindedness, he says, often invades religion, resisting new truth and creating a new beatitude: Blessed are the pure in ignorance.

But a tough mind by itself is not enough. It must be joined with a tender heart, a quality of empathy and warmth that reveals itself in compassion. Otherwise life is depersonalized and the hard hearted gain the world but lose their soul.

The strength to love comes from a tough mind and a tender heart, or as Jesus said, "You must be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

In another sermon in this book King says the strength to love comes from being a transformed nonconformist. We are called, he says, to being people of conviction, not of conformity.

He recalls the words of Paul: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

He recalls the ethical nonconformity of Christ which still challenges all who take it seriously.

And he challenges the church and its clergy to move away from sanctimonious indifference to struggles for justice:

"Called to combat social ills, the church has remained silent behind stained-glass windows. Called to lead men on a highway of brotherhood and to summon them to rise above the narrow confines of race and class, it has enunciated and practiced racial exclusiveness."

The strength to love, then, must manifest itself in a clear understanding of the social forces which divide our community and a willingness to take risk to overcome those forces and bring people together.

In our Tuesday noon adult study we have been watching the PBS video series, "From Jesus to Christ, the Story of the Early Christians." The series examines the message of the early church and the reasons this message was embraced by so many around the Roman world. One reason was the message about people and their inherent worth in the eyes of God:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

This message made an impact in a world divided into rigidly defined races, classes, and religious groups.

The strength to love overwhelmed these divisions and transformed the social order of the day.

Today we live in a social order that is fractured by many lines of division and mistrust. This has become acutely clear to me in the wake of the shooting of a black man by a white New Milford police officer.

I don’t want to comment on the specifics of that case because I don’t know any more than anyone who reads the papers. I want to talk, rather, about the different ways people view the case and the different emotions it evokes.

I wasn’t thinking about the shooting when I invited Pastor Toby of the New Milford Chapel to have lunch with me a few weeks back. I had received a call from a family that had suffered an untimely death and was worried that an unquiet spirit had come into their home.

It is unusual for me to get a call about visions, ghosts, or spirits, but the last time I did it turned out to be the sign of a severe family crisis, a crisis that ended in a murder, and so I didn’t want to just say, "Oh, I can’t help you, good bye."

I thought about who I might consult regarding this unquiet spirit, and I remembered that Pastor Toby, who recently moved here from Liberia in Africa, had done a drumming ritual at a Hospice remembrance service, a ritual he called "Speaking to the Dead." So I called and asked if he could offer any help, and he said that this was quite a common task of pastors in Africa and he would be willing to help. So we decided to meet for lunch and review the case.

After we talked about how he would approach this unquiet spirit, we spoke briefly about the shooting death on Route 202. What struck me most was his evident fear for his own teen age sons.

We all know teenagers get into trouble, that they sometimes act impulsively and without due regard for the consequences. But what would the potential consequences be for a young black man compared to the consequences for a young white man, or a young girl of any race. What are the social forces that raise the stakes so dramatically?

Well, we know what they are, and we know they have deep roots in our hearts and in our history. And it was painfully evident to me that day that my friend and fellow pastor had a burden of fear to bear that I do not.

With this in the back of my mind I went this past week to a meeting of the Danbury area NAACP which was held in New Milford. Being the only white person there apart from the newspaper and radio reporters, I was determined to listen carefully and simply try and see the situation through a different set of eyes. And what I heard was very much like what Pastor Toby had expressed: a burden of fear and apprehension that a child whose skin is dark faces a world that looks different, that acts different, that has a demon of fear which makes many situations and encounters volatile and dangerous.

These words, "a demon of fear," are carefully chosen. Do you recall the words of Paul:

Ephesians 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

There is an evil power in the world, a power which divides communities, nations, religions, and races. It is the devil, but not, I think, a personification outside of us. It lurks in our hearts as an ever present temptation to divide the world into us and them. It has infiltrated our institutions, our attitudes, our culture, and our political structure.

We see it made manifest in war, in social caste, and in the fear of parents for their children.

What does the strength of love call us to do in the face of this. How can we have a tough mind and a tender heart, how can we be transformed non-conformists?

Let us turn to the example of our Lord. He didn’t stay in the synagogue and wait for the world to come to him. He went out into the towns and villages and mixed it up with every manner of person. He looked people in the eye, he heard their cry, he touched their wounds and healed their diseases. He told them not to fear, but then he took the burden of their fear upon himself. He challenged the hypocrisy of those who ruled unjustly, and through his suffering showed their powerlessness in the face of true courage.

We, too, at the least, can move beyond these walls and listen to the experiences, fears, and concerns of those who are different from us in race but one with us in Christ. Next Sunday at 4:00 the NAACP and the Danbury Ministerial Alliance and having a prayer vigil on the New Milford Green. We can stand with them. We can open our ears to their voices. We can pray for unity in Jesus Christ and for the strength to love to reign victorious over prejudice, fear, and division.

Our Lord, in his life, offered us signs and symbols of our unity. He offered us the gift of his spirit, which, if we embraced it, would become in us a never ending source of life and strength. Today we gather around the table to share the sacramental signs of our unity and his presence. May we take this sacrament with understanding, that it may be not only to our comfort, but also our calling to new life in Jesus Christ. May it be for us a source of strength to love and the power to overcome evil. Amen.


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